Read Them The Riot Act!
Riots. Weve heard about little else following the recent somewhat shocking events in the UK.
So how is the UK criminal justice system dealing with the offenders? How would we deal with them?
Weve had some experience, though not on the scale of the UKs. Redfern in 2004, Macquarie Fields in early 2005, and Cronulla in December 2005. The Cronulla riots were probably the most notable, involving mob violence between a group of 5,000 young white Australians and members of the Lebanese community (or anyone of Middle Eastern appearance). Over a few days, cars and shopfronts were smashed and several people assaulted, including police officers.
Following the Cronulla Riots the NSW Crimes Act was amended. The sentence for the offence of riot increased from a maximum 10 year jail term to 15 years (its 10 years in the UK), and affray from 5 years to 10. Riot means a group of 12 or more people who use or threaten unlawful violence for a common purpose (ie racial hatred), which would cause someone to fear for their safety. Affray involves someone using or threatening to use unlawful violence towards another person, causing them to fear for their safety (verbal threats alone dont qualify). It can include things like throwing a petrol bomb at someone, even if it misses its target.
Police also got new special powers, including being able to lock-down a targeted area (eg. a suburb) and search people and cars in that area without a warrant.
But the increased sentences were really a deterrent only. Out of the 80+ people charged over the Cronulla riots, most received fines or good behaviour bonds. A limited few got jail sentences, the longest being 9 months.
While some would argue (and did) that sentences were too soft, the judiciary have to follow clear sentencing guidelines. That means considering things like mitigating factors (eg. provocation), first time offences, good character, and whether the person is likely to re-offend.
But clearly magistrates and judges in the UK are under serious pressure to be tough on rioters/looters. The Prime Minister David Cameron has publicly supported a go-hard approach.
Many argue that jailing young people for a first offence will turn them into hardened criminals. And that people should be sentenced based on the individual thing theyve done, not on public outcry.
UK magistrates cant give jail sentences greater than 6 months (more serious cases get referred to the Crown Courts). Many offenders are being sentenced for offences like theft, rather than the more serious riot, violent disorder and affray offences of the UKs Public Order Act.
It will be interesting to see the sentences that emerge as the more serious cases begin to move through the Crown Courts.